Rookie Hopes to Play Well at The Players Championship

Friday, March 23rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Dallas' Brad Elder arrived at The Players Championship not knowing what to expect. A rookie last season, he did not play the event considered the fifth major by most players because of the strong field and $6 million in prize money.

Sure, he'd seen the island green on No. 17, but that was while sitting on the couch watching television. So he had plenty of questions: Where would he park? Where's the locker room? Where's the first hole?

Elder, though, had no trouble finding his way through Thursday's first round.

He simply passed many of the world's best players, then planted himself into a tie for eighth place with a 3-under 69. In the hunt for the largest winner's check on tour ($1,080,000), he trails leader Paul Azinger by only three strokes and has a three-stroke lead over Tiger Woods.

"This is my first time here, so I would have been happy with even par today," Elder said. "It just so happens that I shot 3 under."

Elder's ability to negotiate the tough course despite his unfamiliarity can be largely attributed to rookie-season experiences.

He spent 2000 learning the ins and outs of the tour, making friends, getting tips on places to stay, where to eat, and how to play particular courses.

Most important, the University of Texas graduate played as if he belonged. Instead of being in awe, Elder made the cut in 10 of his first 12 events. After two top-10 finishes, including a tie for second at the SEI Pennsylvania Classic, he finished 68th on the money list with $700,738.

"I feel very comfortable," Elder said. "I've gotten to know some of the guys and things like that. I've heard it's a lot easier to play out here your second year. You know the courses and where to go when you get to a tournament."

Coming close to a win last year teased him. He wants to contend consistently but is quick to point out that patience will take a player farther than aggressiveness. He's learned that from playing with the best in the game.

"If you're not swinging well, then you have to find a way to get the ball in the hole," he said. "That's what these guys who are out here every week do. Their bad round is 71, and they didn't hit it very good. But then they start hitting it good, and those rounds turn into 65s and 66s."

Elder's primary concern is consistency. He has missed the cut in three of his last six tournaments.

But on Thursday, he was solid, keeping mistakes to a minimum while giving himself birdie opportunities.

He birdied Nos. 2 and 7 for a 34 on the front nine, then birdies at 11 and 13 got him to 4 under. Although he bogeyed 15 after hitting an errant drive and missing a 10-foot putt, he had birdie chances on 16 and 17. He missed putts from inside 10 feet on both holes, but made a 15-footer to save par on 18.

"I hit a couple of shots that got away from me," he said. "I just went out with my game plan, which is basically the same each week: Hit fairways and hit greens, and give yourself opportunities."

Elder will at least have a better feel for the course when he steps to the first tee Friday. When he first saw the storied 17th in a practice round, and looked over the water at the island green, he was surprised by what he saw.

"On TV, the green looks bigger than it does in real life," he said.